The Modi government has identified 115 most backward districts in the country and endeavours to put them on the aspirational path.
The programme has thus far shown remarkable results, using evidence-based data.
While some critics oppose their ranking, based on what they see as ‘naming and shaming’ of districts, the government has put in place a rewards system, wherein the greater the development, the more the financial support.
On 15 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the fifth meeting of the governing council of Niti Aayog. On the agenda were four key issues: water management, agriculture reforms, security in left-wing extremism affected districts and achievements/challenges of the aspirational district programme.
PM Modi noted that many districts have witnessed huge transformation in the past one year and he praised the local teams working to create ‘champions of change’ out of the most backward districts of the country.
What is so special about this initiative that the Aayog took it up as one of the top agendas to be discussed in the very first meeting of PM Modi’s second term? Apart from the fact that the PM Aspirational District (PMAD) project demands effective implementation of cooperative federalism in true letter and spirit, where coordination of centre, state and district officials is needed to bring a change on the ground, what must’ve encouraged the government to put its foot on the accelerator is the tremendous progress achieved by these districts in such a short span.
But first things first, a short introduction of the PMAD is in order here. It was announced by Modi in January last year while addressing a gathering of district magistrates and commissioners of India’s 115 most backward districts which rank at the bottom on development parameters such as education, skill development, basic infrastructure, health, nutrition, agriculture resources, financial inclusion, et cetera.
In his speech at the launch, the Prime Minister had emphasised the need to change the mindset and label them as “aspirational” rather than “backward”, in line with his government’s approach of using politically correct terminology (for instance, viklang are now officially called divyang). Once the districts were selected, they were given initial scores (baseline) based on 49 performance indicators (81 data points) under five themes - Health and nutrition (weightage in final score: 30 per cent), Education (30 per cent), Agriculture and water resources (20 per cent), Basic Infrastructure (10 per cent), Skill Development (5 per cent) and Financial Inclusion (5 per cent).
In April, the districts started entering data. In May, baseline scores were put out on ‘champions of change’ real-time monitoring online dashboard and first base rankings were announced. In June, the first delta ranking was published. The second delta ranking came out in October.
Since, the programme is evidence-based, availability of authentic and reliable data is central to its success. While districts can be relied on to enter data about many indicators, there are some areas which are surveyed every few years. To get regular and timely data on these specific pointers, the government has partnered with Tata Trusts, Piramal Foundation, and IDinsight who also help in third-party validation of the data entered by the district administration.
This helps in establishing ‘the credibility and integrity of the data entered to the dashboard’ and helps district administrations ‘acquire necessary skills and experience to improve their own data collection and validation techniques’ by working closely with validation agencies.
Keeping in mind the challenges in coordination between the centre, state and district- level functionaries, the union government has appointed officials at the rank of Joint Secretary/Additional Secretary as ‘guardians’ of these districts who can work with their civil service colleagues at the district level and also help with secretaries in key ministries both at centre and state level to get things done because of involvement of many departments such as health, education, skill development, et cetera.
Especially, in light of this, the achievements of these districts in just one year is commendable. Out of 101 most backward districts, 97 districts have improved their composite scores by over 10 percentage points, 67 of them by over 15 per cent and 27 of them have improved scores by over 20 per cent.
Kaphire in Nagaland stands at the bottom of the rankings and could improve by only 5.16 percentage points. Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur is currently the top performer which improved its score from 29.41 per cent to 58.9 per cent, an impressive increment of 29.49 per cent in just one year. Its ranking improved from 94 in May last year to 19 at present.
Since eastern India is comparatively much more poorer than the rest of the country, it also has the maximum share of backward or “aspirational” districts. In a way, this also helps the government concentrate its efforts in a better manner. Another helpful aspect is that barring West Bengal (which refused to be a part of this well-meaning programme), most of these states are now governed by Bharatiya Janata Party governments.
Out of 101, Jharkhand, with 19, has the largest proportion of aspirational districts. Barring two, all districts have improved their scores by over 15 per cent. Simdega increased its score by an impressive 27 percentage points, jumping in ranking from 74 in May 2018 to top 10 in May 2019. Gumla stood last in the state with an improvement of 8.48 per cent.
Next is Bihar with its 13 districts in the list of 101 most backward ones. Seven of them have improved their rankings. Nine districts improved their scores by more than 15 percentage points and all of them registered an improvement of at least 10 per cent.
Chhattisgarh didn’t perform as well as the other states. Out of 10 districts, none showed an improvement of more than 20 per cent and only two improved their ranks, that too by only a few positions. Still, each district improved its score by over 10 per cent points. So, while there were no outliers, either from the top or bottom, on an average, it managed to post a decent progress.
Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh each have eight districts in the list. In UP, seven improved their ranks, four of them by more than 25 positions. The best performer was Balrampur with an improvement of 29.49 per cent in score (improved rank by 75 positions) and Chandauli with a 17.9 per cent increment came last.
In MP, Singrauli district came on top with an improved score of 26 per cent. Guna showed least improvement of all but managed to improve its score by 11.93 per cent.
Lastly, Rajasthan is the only other state which has five or more districts in the bottom 101 list. Jaisalmer registered the most improvement of 24.75 percentage points while Dholpur added the least (13 percentage points) to its score.
If the composite scores reflect ground realities and the data has been validated by third-party partners, then this progress of backward districts under this programme is indeed praiseworthy.
Apart from overall improvement in composite scores, some districts showed great performance in specific areas. Consider the difference in learning outcomes between National Assessment Survey (NAS 2017) and the household survey that was conducted under the PMAD programme.
As the PMAD document on second delta ranking noted, the average performance of students in several districts improved compared to the NAS 2017 survey in both mathematics and language, especially that of Class 3 students where 50 districts improved their score in mathematics and 71 districts in language. (Here, it is important to see if the students were measured on similar tests both in the NAS and household surveys)
Similarly, many districts performed well in health and nutrition, financial inclusion, basic infrastructure, et cetera. The ‘champions of change’ dashboard makes detailed month-wise, district-wise information on key indicators accessible to everyone.
Initially, many criticised the government’s approach of only ranking districts in this manner of naming and shaming in order to induce competitive spirit so that they improved. But the government is not just collecting data and concentrating on improving coordination and administration. Most importantly, it is rewarding those districts which are showing improvements.
Recently, Niti Aayog announced that it was making available additional funding to the tune of about Rs 1,000 crore for two years as a reward to top performing districts. Additionally, the government has also mandated that ‘60 per cent of CSR allocation of Central Public Sector Enterprises under health, nutrition and education be spent on projects in aspirational districts.’
PMAD is changing the most backward districts of the country. Focused attention to these districts on improving education, health, basic infrastructure, skill development and financial inclusion will not only help India raise its Human Development Index drastically in the coming years, but also give a renewed sense of hope and confidence to those living in utter neglect for the past many decades.
The intent of this pet initiative of the Prime Minister is worth applauding. Its success will prove that the different arms of the Indian state spanning across centre, state, district levels and so many ministries can indeed come together and work to deliver for the poorest of the poor.